Superhero live-action television series
Superhero live-action television series are television programs which feature the adventures of superhero characters, typically adapted from their original comic book roots, applied in a live action format. This often requires considerable modification in contrast to the animated television series translation of superheroes. Live action series featuring superheroes have been featured on TV almost since the beginning of the comic book medium and continue today in varying degrees. Such programs are typically action, science fiction, and adventure oriented, though they can also be drama oriented.
Limited budgets and oddball writing hampered many early superhero series. The 1950s Adventures of Superman series starring George Reeves - an extension of the popular movie serials - featured very limited and unconvincing special effects but was hugely popular.
The live-action Batman series of the late 1960s, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, made playful use of many of the conventions of superhero comics, including colorful costumes, visual sound effects, implausible escapes, and heavily expository dialog. The series helped sell color televisions and introduced the characters to millions of viewers. It reflected and reinforced the popular perception of superheroes as childish entertainment and made Batman a household name.
Batman led to imitators like Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific but only The Green Hornet starring Van Williams as the Hornet and a young Bruce Lee as his sidekick Kato approached the popularity of Batman.
By the late 1970s, superhero-like series, such as The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off, The Bionic Woman, found success. This led to series which were explicitly superhero shows, predominantly on CBS, such as Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter, which, like the previous decade's Batman was a huge hit and continues to be a cult classic despite campiness.
There were also abortive attempts at live-action adaptations of Spider-Man, Captain America, and Doctor Strange which fans complained failed to adequately emulate the character's stories' action and spirit. In the end, all of these adaptations would fall victim to CBS's desire to avoid being identified as "the superhero network."
The other major superhero series of this era, The Incredible Hulk starring Bill Bixby as David Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, took a more thoughtful and dramatic approach. The show focused on Banner’s nomadic lifestyle and the curse that the Hulk had placed upon him, as typified by the classic closing image of Banner hitchhiking alone to the music of a quiet piano piece, "The Lonely Man." The series was a ratings success, survived the TV superhero purge of the time and has proven to be the most durable of this period.
Meanwhile, superhero shows aimed at children, such as The Shazam!/Isis Hour and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl prospered. In addition, the PBS educational series The Electric Company also prominently featured Spider-Man stories as well as its own creation, Letterman, while Sesame Street occasionally uses the character Grover as Super Grover.
The 1980s saw the launch of various live-action superhero series that did not have their origins in comic-book lore, but only The Greatest American Hero, a series with a humorous yet respectful tone about a superhero who could barely control his powers, lasted for more than a few episodes. In 1985, Misfits of Science, a series with comedic overtones, lasted 15 episodes.
Superboy ran from 1988-1992 in syndication. It was a half-hour live-action television series based on the fictional DC Comics comic-book character Superman's early years as Superboy. It was renamed The Adventures of Superboy at the start of the third season.
The 1990s saw a resurgence in superhero series, beginning with the short-lived live adaptation of The Flash which had the misfortune of being scheduled against the television powerhouses The Simpsons and The Cosby Show. In 1993, the ABC Network had a success with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which reformatted the Superman mythos as a romantic/action drama. This led to several non-traditional approaches to superheroes in live-action shows aimed at older audiences. The most successful was Smallville, another Superman reincarnation, which portrayed the hero’s early years in a teen drama format which enjoyed a lengthy ten season run. Other recent TV superhero or superhero-like series enjoying varying degrees of success include: Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Birds of Prey (TV series), Dark Angel, Mutant X, Heroes, Misfits, and No Ordinary Family.
Starting in 2012, DC Comics grew its television presence with the success of the Green Arrow TV series adaptation, Arrow. This was followed up in the fall of 2014 with four adaptations on separate TV networks: Gotham (on the backstory of Gotham City in Bruce Wayne's youth and Det. James Gordon's early police career before Batman began operations); The Flash, which is set in the same universe as Arrow and includes principal cast members of the 1990s version as recurring characters. CBS premiered Supergirl in 2014 which was later incorporated into the same story universe as well as later moving to the same network, while a Flash spinoff, Legends of Tomorrow, was added as well. In 2014, ABC had Constantine, which adapts the John Constantine franchise, lasted only one season.
Marvel Comics, on the other hand, approached the highly successful video streaming website Netflix to produce several original-content adaptations of various properties for release in 2015. These include Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage as well as an upcoming series based on Iron Fist. All of these would be combined in a team-up series based on The Defenders.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, shows such as Ultraman, Spectreman, and Kamen Rider defined the Japanese tokusatsu style of action/science fiction/superhero shows. These series rivaled the American model in campiness but differed in that the superheroes could often grow or transform, fought monsters and robots as often as traditional supervillains and the shows were more violent, albeit in a stylized fashion. These shows found a wide audience in Japan and many other parts of the world but gained only a sizable cult following in the U.S. Every year, Japan changes superheroes.
In 1993 Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, based on Japan’s Super Sentai, became the first adaptation of a tokusatsu show to become a widespread hit in the Western world. Since then, the Power Rangers franchise has continued to maintain a young Western audience with its many different incarnations.